Anita Patterson

The Role of Literature In Times of Division

Anita Patterson is Professor of English at Boston University. Her research focuses on American literature, modernism, and black poetry of the Americas, and her books include "From Emerson to King: Democracy, Race, and the Politics of Protest." She composed this essay to serve as an introduction to a seminar on the role of literature in times of division that the Center hosted on April 12, 2017 featuring Dr. Patterson in dialogue with Boston-area university students.

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“When I converse with a profound mind,” Emerson writes, “I am at first apprised of my vicinity to a new and excellent region of life. I feel a new heart beating with the love of the new beauty.” Literature, Emerson says, is our way of conversing with profound minds—writers, scholars, artists, activists, and others whose lives may be in some ways very different from our own, but who nonetheless confront questions and emotional burdens we all share.

One reason Emerson’s words come back to me now, is that they suggest how literature, both in and outside of the classroom, allows us to encounter, and value, what he calls new and excellent “regions of life,” and this, in turn, helps us to us to bridge cultural and social divides. Intercultural dialogue has been a mainstay of my life for as long as I can remember. My mother’s parents emigrated from Hiroshima to California in the 1920s. My father's family descended from Russian-Jewish immigrants who had settled in the Boston area in the late 19th century. My husband, Orlando, is Afro-Jamaican. We hope that our daughter, Kaia, will learn the wisdom, courage, and compassion she needs to meet the challenges of global citizenship. For these reasons and many others, I have spent years working to discover, through reading and conversation, the consequences of migration and intercultural dialogue in the New World.

Likewise, in the classes I teach at Boston University, I have tried to build a curriculum that illustrates how such dialogue is central to the formation of the American literary tradition. African American writers such as Frederick Douglass, Harriet Jacobs, and W. E. B. Dubois find their place alongside Emerson and Thoreau. I show how migration to the shores of the New World is central to the rise of modernism in the United States, and poets such as Whitman, T. S. Eliot, Langston Hughes, and Mitsuye Yamada are best read in relation to Caribbean contemporaries and contexts. I’ve found that conversation about American literature presented in this way inspires hope. By reflecting on the history of intercultural dialogue, students learn how life-enhancing and sustaining literature can be. This gives them courage and dedication to work for a better world in the present moment.

There are many joys in being a teacher, but for me, classroom conversation about literature is essential. Ours is a time in wider society when people feel forced to think fast. The campus of a large research university like Boston University is a very busy place, driven by the ticking clock. By contrast, when we read and converse about literature, we do not, Emerson says, “at once arrive at satisfactions.” Indeed, it’s been my experience that the lessons I have learned from a particular literary work can take years to crystallize. That’s why, as a teacher, I try to encourage close, careful reading and interpretation of passages. I try to pace my literature classes by observing a time frame that allows my students to reflect on what they read. It’s been my experience that students thrive in classrooms where they don’t feel rushed, and we can dwell together on the meaning of a phrase or the depth of a writer’s insight. Ideally, the literature classroom is a place we all take our time arriving at the satisfactions of reading. We learn, in this process, not to make snap judgments. We foster bonds of community through our acts of reading.

In an era where lives are ever more text driven, the spontaneity of conversation in the literature classroom poses instructive challenges. Is it ok to make a mistake or to forget a word or name in the presence of our peers? If one person in the room has an opinion that is completely different from the others, will they feel comfortable expressing it? How do we avoid fearful conformity and ensure that all voices and perspectives will be heard? Emerson says, “A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within, more than the lustre of the firmament of bards and sages. Yet he dismisses without notice his thought, because it is his. In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts: they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty.” Emerson insists, and I agree with him, that great works of literature should teach us to believe in our own thoughts, and not to dismiss them just because they are our own. When literary works resonate with our own beliefs, we state and embrace them with greater clarity. We learn how to think together, by learning first to think for ourselves, and to cherish individuality.

Because conversation about literature cultivates self-reliance, it can and should lead to lively differences of opinion. These differences are what render conversation possible and fruitful—without them, we would just sit in a room together and nod in agreement with each other. How do I address and reconcile social division in the classroom? I’ve found that humanities education makes students more open-minded and respectful of differences, because in the humanities we know there is always more we can learn from others, always one more nuance or perspective on a given poem. It would be a tragedy for scholars at a young and formative phase of their lives to think they know everything, because when you stop learning, you put an end to living itself. I think this is what Emerson means when he tells us our life should be “a self-evolving circle, which, from a ring imperceptibly small, rushes on all sides outwards to new and larger circles, without end.”

I was glad to see Daisaku Ikeda’s emphasis in his 2017 peace proposal on the potential of young people as critical agents of change whose energetic engagement will create a better world. My life as a teacher is premised on this same belief in the need to attend to the rising generation. I often remind myself that Emerson’s “The American Scholar,” an 1837 speech given at Harvard College, was addressed to Thoreau’s graduating class. Emerson said, “The millions, that around us are rushing into life, cannot always be fed on the sere remains of foreign harvests.” He was worried that students would not be sufficiently encouraged to reflect on what they had read, and that the literature of earlier generations and other lands would not nourish them. He compares the great writer to an insect who “lay[s] up food before death for the young grub they shall never see.” As a teacher, and as a parent of a twelve-year-old about to enter middle school, I have come to be ever more aware of the challenges we face in an educational system confronted by large lecture courses, understaffed departments, teacher assessments, and multiple choice, standardized exams that stress the importance of conveying, and retaining, information. Students today are constantly inundated with a chaotic welter of information, but only through the powers of reflection will they be able to impose order and meaning on what they know, so that knowledge is transmuted into wisdom, a precious, life-giving sustenance. I have tried, as a teacher, to create a classroom environment that will give young people today the same wellspring of literature that I had when I was their age.

There is much more to be understood about the role of literature in times of division, but I will end by saying that it instills historical self-awareness, by which I mean that we learn to see social division and conflict in our society as having been shaped by what has happened and been said and done before us. Acknowledging our history is a necessary first step towards finding solutions to the national and global challenges we face. The problem of cultural difference has been with our society centrally and long enough to give American writers a lot of time to mull it over. W. E. B. Dubois, for example, emphasized the need for a liberal arts curriculum—not just technical training for a particular trade—in healing the wounds of civil war and racial violence in the South during the Reconstruction era. “Training for life teaches living,” he writes in The Souls of Black Folk,

“but what training for the profitable living together of black men and white? Here, amid a wide desert of caste and proscription, amid the heart-hurting slights and jars and vagaries of a deep race-dislike, lies this green oasis,… Why not here, and perhaps elsewhere, plant deeply and for all time centers of learning and living, colleges that yearly would send into the life of the South a few white men and a few black men of broad culture, catholic tolerance, and trained ability, joining their hands to other hands, and giving to this squabble of the Races a decent and dignified peace?”

I believe universities and centers of learning like this one should strive to be “oases” in Dubois’s sense. He understood how the education of today’s youth will influence their future choices and actions, thereby shaping the direction of our society over time. For Dubois, as for Emerson, a humanities education is necessary for citizenship and global citizenship, because, in the words of President Ikeda, it “enables people to reframe events, wherever they may occur, through a shared human perspective, and to foster action and solidarity…, thus bringing forth the inner capacities we each possess.”

In conclusion, my happiest moments as a teacher occur when I can nurture conversation about literature, give students time for reflection, and enhance their historical self-awareness, so that they are transformed by what they learn. I hope that students will continue to read literature after college, as a lifelong pursuit. In Emerson’s “Experience,” conversation leads to a vision of what he calls “this new yet unapproachable America.” I think what he means is that, through reading and conversation we learn values necessary for the healthy flourishing of civil society, and find friendly relations of mutual encouragement that strengthen our collective advance towards peace and a better world.

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